Many of these posts have discussed the darker aspects of West Terre Haute’s history, and will continue to do so. But, tonight I wanted to tell a bit of the kind of stories I hope will balance out the portrait. I begin with memories of two extraordinary “ordinary citizens of WTH: my grandparents.
Nearly all that is good, all that is right, in me is the loving product of extraordinary women. One of those, indeed one of the most exceptional human beings I have ever known, was my Grandma, Hilda Mae Chrisman. She lived five weeks beyond her 104th birthday. She suffered the eviscerating pain of living longer than 6 of her 10 children (including my incredible Mother). Longer than all but one of her siblings. Outlived her beloved father by 73 years, her mother by 45, her well-loved husband by 33. Still, she was the most indomitable, strongest, wisest, most caring person in the world.
That I am an historian by nature and trade is principally due to her. She told wonderful stories of the past that inspired me to want to learn more. Thus, I want to tell you a bit about Grandma’s history. Just a bit for now, because to tell even a portion of her life would take volumes.
She was born in 1901 in West Terre Haute, Indiana, to William Hants and Lulu Arthur Hants. Bill Hants, a maverick personality (one of the highest honors of my life was Grandma telling me I was like her dad), housepainter, mortuary assistant and paperhanger, remained as a darling of his daughter’s life until the end. I always sensed that Hilda was Bill’s little girl forever. His one flaw was alcoholism, which explains, I think, my Grandma’s tolerance and care of those (including my wonderful Gramps, Ray Chrisman, and several of my uncles) so afflicted.
Her mother was Lulu Arthur. In my mind, she is a darker character. One who I think sometimes believed married beneath her, but seems to have cared for Bill despite his faults. My only memories of Great Grandma Lulie were of a stern character sitting in a chair in a darkened corner smoking a corncob pipe (I distinctly remember her sending me to a neighborhood grocery as a seven-year-old to get her a pouch of tobacco) and the fact that she scared the bejeezus out of me.
Allow me to begin what I hope will be a series of notes about Hildy by telling you three stories of her life, two from her early years, one of her death.
At 17, while studying to be a teacher at Indiana State Normal School (now ISU) in Terre Haute, she worked nights as a telephone operator at an office on Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute. This was during WWI, of course. These were the days when all calls were operator assisted and Grandma worked in front of one of those huge switchboards plugging in wires to connect calls.
Now, this was during one of those times when efforts were made to close down the notorious brothels of the hoosier state’s Sin City to protect the health and morals of soldiers and the citizenry (one doubts they were sanguine about the lengths to protect them by their moré upright brethren). Grandma described how on one of the nights the switchboard literally lit up and buzzed constantly. The fevered calls were from prostitutes and madams (conservative estimates put the number of prostitutes in Terre Haute between 700 and 1,000 at that time) to their local “customers.” She and a friend listened in giddily as they connected the local soiled doves with some of the most prominent and upright men in the city ( Even ministers, she said in a lower tone( to finance their journey to and stay in places like Chicago and Evansville. Sometimes their cajolery turned into threats of exposure if the local swains hesitated to come forward with the cash.
As they listened, she and her girlfriend conceived of the idea of going to the train station when their shift ended at midnight. This they did, likely flushed with the guilty pleasure of it all. There they watched skulking men surreptitiously slipping envelops into the lacquered fingers of fashionably dressed, painted faced women.
This little sojourn among the demi-monde, of course, made her late in arriving home that night. Bill Hants was none too pleased to hear his little girl’s reason for getting home hours later than normal.
The next story is also set during the the War To End All Wars, or at least during its conclusion. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month Grandma was once again working at the phone company. Tumults of excitement and relief gripped the city. Grandma, like others was caught up in it as fireworks, ringing bells, and gunshots of celebration cascaded over the city. Her lesson learned, she eschewed joining the celebrations and headed home. As she approached the interurban stop to head home she saw a long, long string of small bobbing lights slither toward her. It was an arresting sight that caused her heart to pump and pump.
After a while she realized this phenomenon was caused by the helmet lamps of hundreds of miners from around the county who were marching into town to join in the joy of peace. We now know that one of the heads beneath those bobbing strobes was that of Ray Chrisman, her future husband, and my gramps. But… more on that in a later essay.
The final story for tonight is about Grandma’s end.
Until the last sixth months of her life Grandma was remarkably aware. Oh, she had her moments and her short term memory declined rapidly, but she was still Grandma. The first time I knew my Grandma was leaving me occurred during a visit we made to her at Easter at my Uncle Kenny’s in Lafayette, where she had been living for five years.
The first shock came when she did not recognize Robin. Now, Robin and my Grandma were something together. Each loved the other completely. Robin was as much Hildy’s granddaughter as anyone. Before Robin and I married we lived with Grandma for six months. As Grandma said, “You don’t really know someone until you’ve wintered with them.” Those two wintered together beautifully, each coming to adore one another.
When she asked who Robin was and I said, “My wife. “ Grandma’s reply was, “You certainly have a beautiful wife.’ For the rest of the day I was seventeen again to her, my mom was still alive, and so was Gramps. It was one of the saddest days of my life. Perhaps selfishly, one of my thoughts that day on a quiet drive home was that the only person who had known me every day of my life was about to leave me.
Her health declined rapidly after that. She was in and out of the hospital. Eventually we had to put her in a nursing home. Finally, in late July we knew the inevitable was lurking. My Uncle kept us informed. That last weekend Robin, my sister and I went to Lafayette for the last time, to keep vigil. On Friday night, Kenny and I spent the night at the nursing home after convincing Robin and Sis to rest at a local hotel.
It was a long sleepless night, with Grandma in and out of consciousness. As morning dawned on a hot July day, Kenny went to shave and freshen up and I said I would stay with her. After a while she stirred. I went to the bed and held her hand and whispered, “Grandma.” She opened her oh so tired eyes and looked at me. I knew she knew me.
“Timmy,” she said, “You were always a good boy.”
She fell back asleep. It was a moment for me. My friend Jess later said it was her way of saying goodbye. I think she is right.
We kept vigil the rest of the day. More family came to join us. She had her spells when we thought the end was at hand. My brother Terry and sister-in-law Trish arrived in the late afternoon. Still Grandma’s incredible strength persevered. At about 7:30, my brother, sister, sister-in-law, Robin and I (JoAnn Crumrin’s children and spiritual children) felt we could safely go get something to eat.
As I was paying the bill my cell phone rang. It was my Aunt joyce saying to hurry back. We rushed through the Saturday traffic. As we walked to the entrance to the nursing home, Joyce met us. “I’m sorry,” she said “she’s gone.’
After seeing her, the family left the room and we all talked about this remarkable woman.
For a reason I cannot now remember I went back to her room. The lights had been shut off, only the small one above her bed remained lit. It was ethereal looking. When I walked in a nursing assistant was washing my grandmother’s naked body. My instinct was to turn away. But something stopped me. There was my granny’s naked, dead, painfully thin body. I looked at her face. It was almost peaceful. I could almost here her say, “Naked I came into this world. Naked I leave it.”
This will not be the last you will hear of my Grandma. I hope you have some sense of her eventually, but these stories are not truly for my Facebook friends. They are for my nieces and nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews who, sadly, will never know her, never feel her gentle, loving touch, but who should feel her spirit.
Hilda Chrisman was not famous She lived a quiet, worthy, loving life. She deserves to be remembered by the world and will not be. But that she is remembered by me and those she touched. That would be enough for her. That was the kind of woman she was.
As anyone who has read my postings knows, I am the product of extraordinary women. But there was one terrific male influence in my life. My Grandpa, Ray Chrisman (his first name was actually Cloral; nobody knows what that was all about). As you may know, Gramps (what Grandma always called him) may have been one of the miners who formed a snake line, that so enthralled my Grandmother, under their miner’s helmets and marched into Terre Haute to celebrate the end of WWI.
What we do know for sure is that they met on an interurban train (interurbans were trains that ran between many cities in Indiana until the 1930s and would now be a godsend for commuters) in 1920. My petite, unworldly, sheltered grandmother was drawn to the rough miner who smiled at her on the train. From that first encounter came a 56 year marriage that produced 10 children and, ultimately, me.
Gramps had a tough life. He started working at age seven, hauling coal for the postmistress at St. Mary’s village in western Vigo County. As a side note, when at age 18 I began working at a nursing home I met the then 102 year-old postmistress, who still remembered the scrawny 7 year-old Cloral straining to heft the coal buckets. By age 14 he was toiling in the coal mines. One of his jobs was to drive the “bank mules” that hauled coal out of the mines. Bank mules became part of his personal mythology. One of the worst things he could say was “they are dumber than a bank mule” (he had to occasionally get off the coal wagon and whap them with a 2 by 4) and he would walk by Grandma and affectionately smack her bottom and say, “Hildy, your bottom is as broad as a bank mule.” I have never compared her to a bank mule, but Robin is used to my smacks of her bottom. I think she thanks you for that, Grandpa!
Gramps worked damn hard all his life. He spent 40 years working for a cement company, trading coal dust for concrete dust and sand, which ultimately contributed to his death. But he did squeeze out time to play. Gramps was a good baseball player. Good enough to play minor league baseball. Shortly after he and Grandma married he played a season for a minor league team in Matoon, Illinois. But as Granny said, he got homesick for her and came back to West Terre Haute after three months, giving up his big league dreams for her. I don’t think it was a difficult decision for him.
The love of baseball was one of the many gifts Grandpa gave to me. We would sit on Saturday afternoons and watch Dizzy Dean and Peewee Reese do the games. He would explain the intricacies of the game, while complaining that Ol’ Diz and Peewee talked too much. Damn it, he could see what was going on! My Grandpa taught me more about the game than anyone. It was one of our many bonds. I know he was a good baseball player. One of his friends told me my Grandpa could hit a ball farther than anyone he knew. In his 60s he could catch a ball more adeptly barehanded than his 13 year-old grandson could with a glove. Family legend says he was one of those chosen to play against one of Babe Ruth’s barnstorming teams at the old park in Terre Haute in the 1920s.
On the surface, Gramps seemed like a hard man. But I know better. He was a kind, gentle soul. I am proud to say I was his favorite grandchild (out of 65 or so). He and I intrinsically understood each other. We were best buddies. He would take me fishing just so we could be together. Neither of us liked fishing so we never baited the hooks. It was just me and Grandpa hanging out together.
Last year I visited his and Grandma’s graves. I always take flowers, but I wanted to do something just for Gramps. I had a 1950s baseball glove I bought off E-Bay a few years ago. I put it on his grave. It said simply, “Thanks for baseball, Gramps. Thanks for everything.”
“Attempt at Murder in West Terre Haute Follows Threat Note” was a headline in the Klan newspaper, The Fiery Cross of October 3, 1924. The report told of shots being fired at the Rev. C.A. Sanders while he spoke to “thousands” of Klansmen and supporters at the baseball field in West Terre Haute. Though I am still researching the incident, my instinct is that this was likely a piece of Klan “theater.”
I say this for several reasons, including two particular examples of “spin” in the article. The first was the reporting of the death threat. The paper noted that Sanders was accustomed to receiving such threats and ignored it. This sets up Sanders as a Christian of steely resolve who will let nothing deter him from delivering the important Klan message. Before quoting the letter the author surmised that it was written in such a manner as to “impress that the writer was an illiterate.”
“We warned you once before not to speak in West Terre Haute as these d_____ Kluckers pay too much attention to what you say. You may be a fighting parson now but if you try to speak you’ll be a dead parson. Heed this warning or you will get what others have got.”
Granting that the writer likely “cleaned up” the prose, it still does not sound like something “written” by an illiterate. What it sounds like is a letter written by someone (perhaps Sanders or his handlers) who wanted to impress others with how important Sanders was. The phrases “these d_____ Kluckers pay too much attention to what you say” and calling him a fighting parson seem more like efforts to aggrandize the preacher.
So, after the threat a bodyguard of twelve men was formed to stand on the platform. There they all stood when five shots were fired, all missing the mark. No one was injured. The “assailants” got away. How did they escape when a posse of hundreds of men immediately went in pursuit of the culprits? The article has an answer for that. Evidently, the shooter had too big a head start and was not seen or captured by any of the 10,000 people they claimed were in attendance.
But the amazing Rev. Sanders was able to quiet the crowd within minutes. He then had the rapt attention of the crowd during a two hour speech (perhaps harangue might be a better descriptor).
The article ends with a regret that even though accounts of the incident were given to local papers by 11:00 they did not appear in the Sunday paper.
Yep, sounds like a “staged” event.
West Terre Haute held its first street fair and carnival in October of 1907. For a week the main street, Paris Avenue, was host to a mini-wonderland. The promoters of the event, the WTH town band, promised the “bally-hoo of Coney Island,” as well as everything from snake eaters to “high class vaudeville.” Oriental music played by the band would delight the ears of attendees and many free attractions would be available to enthrall all. Paris Avenue was festooned with banners and illuminated with electric lights for the occasion.
The first day of the fair provided a “plantation show and Creation…. running in full blast… and a jolly crowd of chocolate hued negroes furnished entertainment for the fun seeking throng.”
My guess is that my grandmother was there, as the carnival was only 3 blocks from her home. I can see little, six-year old Hildy Hants entranced by the whirl and the colors. I would also guess that if she was there it was on the hand of her father. This was during the brief period when her parents were divorced before remarrying, and I can see Bill Hants enjoying a spectacle much more than the strait-laced Lulu. I am not sure that my grandfather Ray Chrisman would have attended. They lived in St. Mary-of-the-Woods village, and that combined with their more straightened circumstances may have precluded their offering little Ray this chance of a lifetime. Then again, my grandfather had a job at age seven delivering coal for the local postmistress, so he may hand small coins jingling enough to buy some red lemonade and hot peanuts and to see the show. I sincerely hope he did get to go and ride the merry-go-round.
The carnival company contracted to provide entertainment was late arriving, but when they did hit town they brought with them crowd pleasers. Among them was “Colonel Crawford with his wonderful mechanical figures,” which included full size wax figures representing the “assassination of President McKinley, the electrocution of Czolgolsz, his assassin, and James Parker, the colored hero who was the first to lay hands on the assassin after the shooting.” Also represented was a wax figure of Pearl Bryan (see sketch) . Pearl was the victim of a sensational murder case 11 years previously. A young girl from Greencastle, she had become pregnant by her boyfriend. He lured her to Cincinnati by promising to marry her. When she arrived, she found that his intention was to have her undergo an abortion. When she demurred, he beheaded her. So such was the sensational fare meant for the adults in the crowd.
Also on the bill were the LeGrande brothers trapeze act, a monkey balloon ascension, and a man who rode a bicycle on a hire wire. Not to mention one “Great Yanyske, a heavyweight specialty man” and a steel hoop and ring act.
Two of the carnies themselves provided entertainment in both West Terre Haute and its haughtier sister city to the east on the final day. As the Terre Haute Star reported, “one might be led to believe there was a street fair in progress in Ohio street near Justice Brown’s office yesterday. The ‘serging crowds’ and the ‘South American Wonder’ wagon were both present.
Mr. and Mrs. Lambert, described as “genuine show people,” ran a wonder wagon in which they displayed a human monstrosity from South America and sold “nigger babies,” chocolate candies in shape of babies. Well, it seems that during the carnival Mr. Lambert was arrested for throwing stones at a fellow carny. He was hauled to Terre Haute and ordered to pay a fine in lieu of domiciling in the Terre Haute hoosegow. Unfortunately for him, Mrs. Lambert held both the purse strings and the booty from their successful stint in West Terre Haute. She refused to bail him out, possibly, it seems, because her heart had been turned from her husband toward that of a fellow showman. Mr. Lambert was forced to call on the services of an attorney who had a warrant issued claiming Mrs. Lambert had “stolen” his share of their profits.
Lawyers being lawyers, Mrs. Lambert’s mouthpiece claimed she could not be convicted of stealing money she herself had helped earn. Finally it was agreed that she would pay his fine, and she did so by flashing a large roll of cash. Just as everyone thought the matter was settled, Mr. Lambert dashed to the wagon and attempted to drive off, but Mrs. Lambert and her attorney jumped on to stop him. Both attorneys for the plaintiff and defendant urged their clients not to give in.
Sensing defeat, Mr. Lambert said he would give his wife the wagon if she paid his lawyer fees and court costs. One again, she pulled out her bankroll and paid. When last seen she was driving the wagon away like a “conqueror.” One assumes she returned to West Terre Haute to form a new partnership with her huckster paramour.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the KKK was often able to portray the organization as a benevolent group, say like the Eagles or Lions club. This allowed them to attract some supporters who might have been initially unaware, or pretended to be unaware of the truer posture of the Klan. I have been re-reading issues of the KKK newspaper, The Fiery Cross, and am still amazed at how sophisticated their “spin” could be.
They were adroit at portraying themselves as “100 Percent American” and a Protestant Christian organization, which supported teaching the bible in schoos (which attracted many to the cause) and helping out those in need. The editors were especially adept at soft pedaling their anti-Negro feelings (and articles sometimes appeared in which they noted the Klan giving money to Black churches). For the most part the most open attacks were on Catholics, Jews, and “aliens.” But much space was devoted to the Klan as “friend to the community.”
A prime example was Klan attendance at funerals. Many issues carried a photograph of solemn Klan members honoring the dead. One such photo entitled “Funeral at West Terre Haute” appeared in the August 10, 1923 edition. The caption read “Above are the Women of the Ku Klux Klan[their women’s group also donned the white robe] at the grave of Mrs. Katie Simms, where they conducted a most solemn and impressive ceremony at the funeral recently. Love tokens of evergreens were dropped by each one as they knelt while the reader read a silent chapter from then Bible A large cross of red roses was left just before they moved silently away. The ceremony took place at Bethesda Cemetery at West Terre Haute.”
In December of that same year an article told of West Terre Haute Klansmen giving the minister of the Vermillion United Brethren Church a $100.00 to help rebuild his burned church.
(Above image of a Klan funeral vistit in Daviess County, Indiana courtesy of Wabash Valley Visions and Voices)
In 1902 Mr. and Mrs Arthur Thompson sojourned across the bridge to Terre Haute. We do not know what Arthur told the missus to get her to make the journey, but they ended in the office of an attorney, one Mr. L.L. Sweet, Esq. Poor Mr. Thompson soon laid out a case of woe to said lawyer, as Mrs. Thompson grew red about the jowls. His wife, said Arthur, treated him quite badly and he wished fervently for a divorce. We do not know the size of either party in this less than connubial bliss, but one suspects that Arthur felt dwarfed by his wife in some manner.
At any rate, Mrs. Thompson steadfastly refused to even consider this sundering of their vows and dared him to even try it. Tensions arose in the room. Attorney Sweet asked Arthur to come with him to another room to consult privately on the matter. Sensing a ruse, Mrs. Thompson seized her bedraggled husband’s hat, lest he tried to escape. She did not count on the lawyer loaning Arthur a hat so that they might slip out to the nearby courthouse and file the suit for divorce.
An angry Mrs. Thompson awaited their slinking return. When she learned of their foul deed she wrapped her arms around her husband and held him as if in a cage. He was unable to extricate himself from this particular bond of marriage. Squirming and fighting, the poor captive eyes beseeched his lawyer for help. Sweet, giving full effort and all his weight behind it, finally succeeded in separating the pair. As he held tight to the spurned spouse, Mr. Thompson, seeing his chance, took it.
He was last seen hieing down the streets of Terre Haute, and was reported to be in hiding.
Upon reading my latest blog my wife asked if anything good ever happened in West Terre Haute. She was joking but it brings up a good point. Yes, many, many good happened. And the vast majority of people who lived there were good people who lived fulfilling lives. It is just the majority of my research so far has come from newspapers or secondary sources. And in these you tend to get the remarkable or bad news, not the everyday happenings. That is why I am hoping that WTH citizens will come forth with their memories, letters, diaries, etc to flesh out the history. Still, my book will be an honest one. I cannot shrink from the unpleasant, but eventually it will be balanced out by the good.
I have read through 5 years of Terre Haute newspapers this week. I have yet to get through more that four days without a story of a death or crippling injury to a miner. These people were literally dying for work. Risking their lives every day to feed their families. That is a story I must tell well. We are lucky my grandfather made it out of the pit alive.
31% of native-born adult males in Vigo County were members of the KKK in the 1920s. John Colescott, a Terre Haute veterinarian became the head of the national Klan in the 1930s. My assignment next week is to try to find the membership lists and read through the Indiana Klan’s newspaper, The Fiery Cross, which I have on microfilm. Now, it must be noted that the KKK was able to seduce many people with an adroit spin control that portrayed it as a patriotic, Christian group. How to separate the racist chaff from the well-meaning wheat?